Delayed Bags Could Result in Airline Reimbursements, Study Says

PHOTO: Passengers pick up their bags off the baggage claim belt at OHare International Airport in Chicago, Ill., Jan. 19, 2012.

Domestic airlines collectively made $3.36 billion in baggage fees in 2011, a slight decline from the year prior, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

And according to Thursday's release of the Department of Transportation's April 2012 data, the most recent available, the instances of "mishandled baggage" are at the lowest levels they've been since data started being collected in 1987.

But, what are air travelers' rights when a bag is delayed for days? The U.S. government is looking into it.

A June 14 report from the United States Government Accountability Office suggests exploring options for reimbursing airline passengers for bags that are "unreasonably" delayed.

However, DOT data, which the report relies on for its suggestions, does not distinguish in types of mishandled bags. So, a bag that is lost is lumped in with a bag that is delayed or damaged. Because of these limitations, the report reads, "an assessment of baggage delays... cannot be conducted."

Currently, the DOT requires airlines to reimburse checked bag fees for lost bags, but not delayed bags. However, some airlines, such as Delta, reimburse fees in the form of a travel voucher for checked bags delayed more than 12 hours.

Option 1: Keep Current Regulations

The DOT requires airlines to "make every reasonable effort to return mishandled baggage within 24 hours." Airlines also must compensate $3,300 on domestic flights for reasonable expenses related to delayed baggage. (International compensation varies.) They also must inform customers how to file a complaint, acknowledge receipt of the complaint within 30 days and provide a "substantive response" within 60 days.

Option 2: Reimburse checked baggage fee if bag is delayed

Currently, a checked-bag fee is required to be reimbursed if a checked bag is lost, but not if the bag is delayed. The report referenced the DOT as stating that a delayed bag is similar to a delayed flight: Inconvenient for sure, but the service the passenger paid for – in this case, transport of baggage – was ultimately performed.

Option 3: Implement Compensation Standards Based on Length of Delay

This option would require a standardized compensation system based on the length of time it takes to deliver a delayed bag. It would also require the DOT to define what constitutes an "unreasonable delay" and would include the cause of delay and traveler circumstances.

This could be complicated because of a number of factors. Suppose the passenger checked in late, causing the bag to not make the flight? Other circumstances, such a mistagged baggage or a bag that was loaded onto a first flight but not a connecting flight would also need to be addressed.

In the section of the report that deals with implications of implementing minimum compensation standards, it's pointed out that this would require an administrative structure – the cost of which would likely be passed onto customers.

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